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 June 17, 1972

 

Washington, DC,

June 16, 1972

It was a typical June evening in DC—warm and sticky.

As most residents were coming home from a day’s work, Frank Wills was getting ready to start his. Crawling out of bed, the twenty-four-year-old African American night watchman was scheduled for his usual graveyard shift, midnight to 8:00 a.m., at the Watergate Office Building.

For the past year, the six-foot-tall, lanky South Carolinian lived on the third floor of a boarding house on 1315 Twenty-Second Street NWin DuPont Circle, the heart of the capital less than a mile away from the White House. Wills’ one-room apartment—which he nicknamed “the bird cage” because of its minuscule size—had a bed barely long enough to sleep in, a small color television, and no bathroom. He shared a bathroom with eight other tenants on the floor. His weekly rent was fourteen dollars.

Able to sleep for only five hours, he passed the remaining time before his next shift—like he usually did—playing with his cat Tuffy, watching television, and listening to a police scanner in the background on a short-wave radio. At the dinner hour, Wills, who was still far more comfortable in the backwoods of South Carolina than in a big city, rode the bus across town. He ate by himself at the Southern Dining Room, a popular restaurant among blacks who migrated from the South. Treating himself to the closest thing he had to a home-cooked meal, Wills had steak, rice, gravy, salad, and, for dessert, peach pie. The tab was $1.75. Afterward, he took the bus to Georgetown and wandered the streets window-shopping, something he did often while waiting for his shift to begin. Before he went home, he hiked to the Potomac River, found a quiet area, and meditated, utilizing an ancient Eastern exercise that had recently become popularized in the West thanks to the Beatles.

Notwithstanding an ongoing fling with a maid he’d met at work, Wills was essentially a loner. He lived by himself, ate by himself, spent his leisure time by himself. Even his job involved minimal social interaction. Nor did he have any interest in what was happening in the world. Maybe it was for the best. Current events in recent weeks were anything but uplifting: the war in Vietnam saw no end in sight; anti-war protestors throughout the nation continued to rage on America’s streets; commercial airlines were subjected to a rash of hijackings; and on May 15, presidential candidate and segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace suffered an assassination attempt.

When Wills returned to his room, it was time to get ready for work. He took a shower, the second of the day, a ritual he practiced regularly. He got dressed in his company-issued uniform: blue button-down shirt, blue slacks, blue jacket, which included a pocket for his can of Mace.

Upon his arrival in DC from Detroit more than a year earlier, Wills had been able to secure employment immediately when General Security Services (GSS) hired him. Given his prior experience as a department store security guard in Detroit, GSS placed him in the Security Force division. Despite the steady employment and his promotion to rank of corporal, Wills felt he “wasn’t going anywhere” with his current job, which paid eighty dollars a week (slightly more than minimum wage). On his twenty-minute walk to work, the young watchman contemplated “getting a better job and making some money.” Little did he know that a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity would materialize that very evening.

For the previous six weeks, Wills had been assigned to protect the Watergate Office Building,an eleven-story office tower located at 2600 Virginia Avenue NW. Due to its central location, building management often leased its space to government agencies (e.g., the Federal Reserve) and political organizations such as the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which began renting offices in 1967 to serve as its headquarters.

Never armed with a gun, Wills had minimal defense to protect himself against an intruder. His daily duties were to check every door, hallway, parking garage, and potential entry point of the office building to ensure they were locked and secured. If there were any suspicious activities observed, he was required to contact his supervisor or, if needed, the police.

That evening, Frank Wills arrived fifteen minutes early to his midnight shift. The guard he was relieving, Fletcher Pittman,told him he would be on his own—Leroy Brown, who was supposed to work alongside Wills, had left his shift earlier because he was not feeling well. Wills signed in on the employee log and called the GSS answering service to report that he was on duty.

Normally, activity at an office building like this one wound down by the dinner hour. Recently, though, the building had had a steady flow of young energetic workers who were coming and leaving from the sixth-floor DNC offices. With less than five months until Election Day, the DNC was in full swing, its staff not allowing a single minute to be wasted. “The phones constantly rang; typewriters banged and clacked; enthusiastic workers conversed—lots of hyperactivity everywhere,” as one intern recalled, all in preparation for the Democratic National Convention in Miami that was scheduled to take place in three weeks.  Guards had recently reported that “party workers often labored into the morning hours” making final preparations. But on that night, the Watergate was eerily silent.

***

Beginning in the building’s basement, Wills set out for his first patrol.

The basement was comprised of three levels, each serving as an access point to the underground parking garage. Taking the elevator to the second level, known as B-2, Wills exited and encountered the first of three doors that led to the parking garage.

It was locked.

Check.

He checked the second door.

It was unlocked.

Caught by surprise, he scrutinized the latch to see why it was not locking.

Wills discovered a piece of gray gaffer tapeaffixed to the latch. He had encountered it before. To save time when going back and forth with heavy equipment, building janitors would occasionally cover a door latch to avoid having to stop and pull out a key when re-entering the building. Even office workers—including those from the DNC—would use this same technique.

Wills removed the tape.

But once the tape was removed, Wills noticed that the latch was full of cotton and paper. That wasn’t normal. Not panicked yet, he pulled the paper and cotton out of the latch and moved on to the next and final door on the second floor.

It too was unlocked, and Wills found that this latch too was taped and stuffed with cotton and paper. He cleared the latch and secured the door. The second floor was clear.

He walked down a flight of stairs to check the basement’s third floor (B-3). As was the case with the previous floor, the first door was secure, but the next two doors were not locked. One had tape and paper inside the latch, while the other simply had not been secured.

Wills headed to the first floor (B-1) and found all the doors were secured. When he returned to his post in the main lobby, he wrote in the security log at 12:20 a.m., “B-2 level stuff [sic] with paper. Both doors. Also, one Door on B-3 level was open, the other was stuff [sic] with paper.” Something was not right. If one door was taped, that would not have been alarming, but four doors were unsecured, three of which had its latch openings packed with cotton and paper—highly unusual!

Concerned about what he’d observed, Wills phoned his boss, Captain Bobby Jackson. Jackson, the “roving supervisor” that evening, was making his own rounds at a GSS-guarded facility ten miles away in Takoma Park, Maryland, andwas not picking up. Wills left a voicemail at the company’s answering service. Rather than wait for Jackson to respond, the young night watchman called Jackson’s superior, Major Ira O’Neal.

A recently retired veteran of the US Air Force, O’Neal supervised fifty-one GSS security guards, including those who worked at the Watergate. When Wills called, O’Neal was off-duty and sleeping at his home. Awakened by the call, he spoke with the guard and, from what he gathered, assumed the situation was not as dire as Wills presented it to be. O’Neal was aware that office workers had “used this technique to avoid walking around the block to the main entrance of the building.” He instructed Wills to continue checking all the doors of the remaining eleven floors as he normally would. Once completed, O’Neal ordered Wills to report back. It was likely a fluke.

As Wills continued his patrol, Bruce Givner, a twenty-one-year-old DNC intern, entered the main lobby from the stairwell. An incoming senior at UCLA, Givner, whose first day occurred forty-eight hours earlier (Wednesday, June 14), was excited about his summer job. His college professor told him it would be “an experience of a lifetime.” (Givner had no clue how true those words were; just not in the way he could have imagined.)He was tasked with calling and coordinating the “political movers and shakers” throughout the country, in preparation for the upcoming Miami convention.

He wasthe last worker—or rather volunteer, because he wasn’t paid—to leave the DNC offices that evening. While his fellow interns and supervisor had called it quits at 9:00 p.m., Givner had stayed back, taking advantage of the free long-distance phone service to call friends in his Ohio hometown. An hour later, he needed to relieve himself. That was a problem. Since the office was closed, if he went to the men’s room in the lobby, he would not be able to get back inside without the office door locking behind him (apparently he didn’t consider taping the latch). Thinking that he may have to call it quits early, Givner had another idea.

“I remembered the small balcony outside and a flower-filled planter lodged against its front railing” and did his business there. When he was zipping up, Givner looked at the plants he ruined and apologized (he actually said, “sorry”). He would later describe it as “the most noteworthy pee break in American political history” (since it allowed him to remain at the DNC headquarters two more hours, forestalling the burglars’ plans until later that evening when Wills discovered the unsecured doors).

Shortly after midnight, Givner had wrapped up his calls. He was famished. He turned off the lights in the office and headed for the stairwell, opting to walk six flights of stairs instead of taking the building’s elevator. When Wills saw Givner, he asked him to sign out from the visitors’ log.

 “Nah, you don’t need that. I’ve been here all day….Since I didn’t sign in when I got here, I don’t think I need to sign out.”Wills didn’t press the matter, perhaps seeing no reason to pursue it.

After small talk, Givner asked Wills if he’d care to join him; he was planning to place a take-out order across the street at the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge & Restaurant. Known for its slogan, “Someone you know, wherever you go,” the motel chain featured a quaint twenty-four-hour coffee shop.

Though Wills was only thirty minutes into his shift, his concern with the unlocked doors packed with paper and cotton conveniently subsided. The night watchman took his first break of the evening, turned off the lights in the building’s main lobby, and walked across the street with Givner.

Although they were close in age, worked at the same facility, and were new to the Watergate (Wills was assigned to the building the previous month), these two young men had little in common. Givner, who was white, was on his way to a successful legal career in sunny Southern California, while Wills, who hadn’t finished high school, was on track working bluecollar–level jobs. For all intents and purposes, they were from two different worlds; their paths should never have crossed, but on June 17, they did.

Both men ordered the same meal: a cheeseburger, a milkshake, and french fries. Waiting for their orders, they chatted. Once the food was ready, Givner hopped on his motorcycle.

“See you soon,” Givner told Wills.

Givner took off to his cousin’s house. Wills went back to the building.

The two men would never run into each other again.

While he had been away, Captain Jackson, his immediate supervisor, had called and left a message for Wills to complete his rounds and then return the call. Wills sat down at the guard’s desk and enjoyed his meal; his rounds, in addition to calling back his boss, were put on hold.

At approximately 1:30 a.m., nearly an hour after he stepped away to buy food, Wills resumed his duties. Instead of checking the upstairs offices as Jackson requested, Wills went to the basement. He took the elevator to B-2, where he’d originally begun his shift. Upon entry, Wills did what he always did: he checked the door.

It was at that moment that Wills knew he was not alone in the building. The tape had been reapplied.

With a can of Mace and, if need be, his bare fists as his only protection, Wills was not adequately equipped (or trained) to confront an intruder. Was there more than one? Were they armed? What was their target?

With no clear idea how to proceed, Wills returned to the main lobby, where he encountered Walter Hellams, a Federal Reserve Board guard in charge of protecting the agency’s eighth-floor office suite. Wills updated Hellams about the situation; the other guard instructed Wills to call the police. He was reluctant. Fearful of being punished or, worse, losing his job for not following up with his bosses sooner, he tried to circumvent the situation by contacting Fletcher Pittman, the guard he had replaced from the previous shift. Maybe there was a logical explanation.

When Pittman picked up the phone, Wills asked if he had found any locks taped open during his watch. Pittman replied in the negative. Wills knew he was in trouble. Having no choice, he called his supervisor, Captain Jackson.

The B-2 level door had been retaped, Wills reported.

Call the police, Jackson ordered.  

The night watchman complied.

At approximately 1:47 a.m., Wills updated the security log: “Call police found tape on doore [sic].”

In that moment, Frank Wills’ life changed forever. And so would the nation’s.

***

If you enjoyed the introduction of Watergate’s Forgotten Hero: Frank Wills, Night Watchman, follow my progress by subscribing to my quarterly newsletter (fill-in below).

 

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